A Perfect Day in Milano

Posted in A Perfect Day, Milan, Travel by ameliadean on May 18, 2010

Milan has earned itself a bad name among the tourist crowd. Many regard it as an industrial hub, a fast-paced financial center home to big earners and big spenders. From its fascist railway station to its unwelcoming Prada flagship store, Milan is thought to be cold, expensive, and generally lacking in charm.

And yet nothing could be further from the truth. My recent trip proved the city a worthy Italian destination complete with historical attractions, quaint neighborhoods and memorable meals.  Although it may not have as many must-sees as Florence or Rome, Milan offers the perfect place to enjoy the pleasures and surprisingly sane pace of Lombardy life.

I have condensed my four fun-filled days with Marta and her Milan-based sister Valgerður (Vala) into what I imagine to be a single, perfect day in this Italian city.  While it may be impossibly ambitious to do everything here within 12 hours, this format provides an easy way to document and showcase the highlights of our trip. Many thanks to Vala for putting us up and taking us around!


9 AM

Enjoy Milanese Café Culture

Why do the Italians make such good coffee?  Vala tells me it’s because they never clean their espresso machines. Regardless of the reason, taking time out for americano sipping, people watching, and pastry munching helps one start the day out right.

10 AM

Stroll to San Bernadino alle Ossa, Milan’s Bone Church

Although San Bernadino appears at be an ordinary, lived-in church, a little detective work reveals this gem of a room at the end of a dark corridor. If I were to imagine a room decorated with the human skulls and bones of decapitated criminals, it would probably be a very morbid, terrifying space. But there is something matter-of-fact about this ossified chamber. It’s more awe-inspiring than bone-chilling, and most definitely memorable. Marta and I took a moment to light a candle for the living.

11 AM

Explore the Duomo

You could spend an afternoon getting to know Milan’s white marble landmark. The Duomo took five centuries to build and is the third largest cathedral in the world. Venturing inside its quiet, cavernous, candlelit nave is a definite must, but climbing the spiral staircase to the Duomo’s roof was a trip highlight. On a clear day you can see the snow-tipped Alps to the north. Marta and I took time to admire the unusual skyline and watch the people and pigeons in the Piazza del Duomo below.

12 PM

Inspect the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele

I am a sucker for glass and cast iron. Whether it be an atrium, a conservatory, or an arcade, such illuminated spaces always take my breath away. Add some large paintings and mosaic floors, and you have one beautiful attraction. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele connects the Duomo to Teatro Alla Scala, Milan’s world famous opera house. Visitors should be sure to find the tiled image of Turin, a bull, beneath the center dome. If you are in need of good luck, place your right heel on what were once the bull’s gonads and spin around.

1 PM

Splurge on Via Monte Napoleone

I packed light for Milan. Maybe too light. After three days in the Italian sun, I was forced to don my last piece of clean clothing: a gray, sweat-inducing pajama shirt. My damp apparel only added to my sense of alienation as Marta and I wandered up the elegant and expensive Via Monte Napoleone, a street well-known for being lined with jewelery and fashion boutiques.  In spite of feeling out of place, we were obliged to participate in the infamous Milanese tradition of impulsive, frivolous spending. We ducked into a delightful café and ordered the blush pink drink a nearby patron was sipping. It turned out to be a surprisingly refreshing combination of sprite and grapefruit juice. Twelve euros later, we had completely satisfied our need for costly indulgence!

2 PM

Head to La Brera

The lively, quaint La Brera district has a Parisian vibe. The neighborhood’s narrow streets are lined with cafés, galleries, and chic antique shops. We enjoyed handling all the well-made and overpriced collectibles. Below, Marta tries on hats in Il Cameo, a vintage store on Via San Carpoforo.

3 PM

Past the castle, into the park

Once home to Milan’s ruling family, the Castello Sforzesco now contains several art collections and museums. Construction of the castle began in the fourteenth century, but it has been restored and reconstructed several times since its original erection. Following the allied bombardment in WWII, the Milan-based architectural group BBPR was enlisted to rebuild the Castello, adding new interiors and exhibition galleries in the process. We walked through the castle’s courtyards, past gangs of seemingly fearless stray cats, and into the well-inhabited Parco Sempione, an enormous green space with twisting paths, ponds, and tiny bridges.

4 PM

Respect the dead in the Cimitero Monumentale

Vala insisted we go to Cimitero Monumentale. After stumbling across the cemetery’s imposing Neo-Medieval marble entrance, it was obvious why. Home to a vast collection of highly embellished tombs, beautiful sculptures, detailed obelisks, and Greek temples, the Cimitero Monumentale is not your average city necropolis. Marta decided that she would like a maternal statue of Mary atop her grave. I decided I would like a statue of a mother and baby goat.

5 PM

Tram it to Navigli, the Venice of Milan

Ah Navigli, the canal-laced district of Leonardo da Vinci’s design. I can’t think of a better place to wander in the summer twilight. Marta and I spotted an attractive wine and olive oil shop called La Vineria on Via Casale, just off the main canal Naviglio Grande. With wine barrels arranged as outdoor tables, 1 euro glasses of wine, and a crowd of locals, La Vineria promised a good time. We, however, were seduced by the selection of inexpensive, unlabeled bottles of red wine. After purchasing a bottle, we sat along the edge of another nearby canal, the Naviglio Pavese, and drank until our lips turned blue.

6 PM

Celebrate the appertivo tradition

Forget the joys of tapas. The appertivo tradition is seriously special. Buy a beer, cocktail, or glass of Prosecco, and you are entitled to eat as much as you like from a wide assortment of dishes and snacks.

7 PM

Dine for cheap

I have had plenty of unpleasant experiences in Italian restaurants. Usually my irritation comes with the bill. After the charges for bread, water, and table service are added in, the price always magically skyrockets. Even after a delicious meal, my final transaction threatens to leave a bad taste behind. Fortunately, Vala directed us to the amazing pizzeria/spaghetteria La Magolfa, on Navigli’s Via Magolfa. With enormous portions of pasta for under 5 euro, free pizza appetizers, and a dead-cheap house red, I was in store for something special.

8 PM

Go gaga for gelato

There is nothing like good gelato. And there is nothing like GROM, my favorite gelateria in Milan. Inspired by the slow food movement, GROM is all about  natural ingredients, no preservatives, and a precise method of production. Their stracciatella was light, creamy, and fresh. Their espresso was full-bodied and bitter. The flavor of the month– a yogurt based concoction with raisins and almonds–was equal parts sweet and sour. They even executed my favorite flavor of all time–pompelmo rosa– perfectly, balancing the tartness, sweetness, and bitterness of pink grapefruit in an impossibly creamy sorbet. The good news is that you don’t have to go to Milan to taste GROM’s creations. Since 1993, GROM has opened in two dozen Italian cities and spread internationally. It can now be found in Greenwich Village, Shinjuku, and Paris’ rue de Seine.

9 PM +

Make a night of it